The Louvre Abu Dhabi, Exploitation and the Politics of the Museum Industry

With news of the French government signing an unprecedented $1.3 billion agreement with Abu Dhabi’s tourism authority, international media frenzy has formed debating whether France is in fact “selling its soul” as some influential French art historians and former museum directors have stated. As part of an expansive and costly tourist and cultural development, Abu Dhabi has sought to create a museum that will lease the Louvre’s name and its collections. This is not the first time the United Arab Emirates has conducted business with France. According to The New York Times, over the past decade the Gulf state has spent over $10 billion purchasing armaments from the European nation (NY Times 3/7/07).  

The controversy that has surfaced in France is lead by art historian Didier Rykner, one of the most outspoken critics of the French-Emirati deal. Rykner has denounced the plan as a money making scheme which aims to secure diplomatic and economic ties between the two countries. An open letter written by three prominent French figures, including Francoise Cachin, the former head of France’s museums, appeared in Le Monde in December 2006 criticizing France’s intentions in the UAE. Cachin and his colleagues also condemned the Louvre’s current arrangement with the High Museum in Atlanta, which paid $18 million to lease work from the museum over a three year period. Prompted by the open letter, Rykner began an online petition in protest of the Louvre’s preparations. Other art historians, archaeologists and curators apparently agree and are among the 5,000 signatories that have endorsed his petition.


Absent from this recent intellectual and ideological upheaval are petitions from French cultural figures demanding the museum return art obtained during French conquests. Rykner attempted to dispel discussion of this kind by stating that the majority of antiquities in the Louvre’s collection were purchased throughout the Republic’s history, extracted in accordance with archeological accords between excavating teams and the countries of origin, or within the bounds of international agreements. Allegations that portions of the Louvre’s collection were acquired through plundering are merely myth, he elaborated. Ignored in Rykner’s argument is the contention that remains surrounding the possession of ancient works by a number of major international museums which acquired antiquities during colonial periods and/or before international agreements were drafted. Questions also remain surrounding the legal obtainment of works, with a number of cases surfacing in recent years concerning the false provenance of purchased antiquities and the underhanded actions of excavation teams.


Not until after World War II, during which a number of European nations suffered from the illegal removal of art during conflict, was a major international agreement issued for the protection of cultural property. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was signed by a number of Western nations, including France. The agreement is not retroactive and cannot be applied to cultural property removed from its country of origin prior to World War II. A second committee was formed in Paris in 1978 by 22 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization members with the intention of advising formally colonized nations who sought the return of works taken by colonial states. According to UNESCO, several cases have been resolved but many more remain pending. Coincidently, France is not listed as a member of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin.


At the Committee’s meeting in 2005, Egypt’s secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass requested the return of a number of ancient Egyptian works, including the Dendara Temple Zodiac, which is housed in the Louvre. A number of justifications have been thrown about in the art and archeological worlds as to why major European and American museums should retain custodianship and ownership of the contested works. In some instances museum curators have been known to dismiss the country of origin’s requests as “selfish,” insisting that antiquities belong to the cultural patrimony of humanity. It should be noted that exhibitions of ancient Egyptian art are usually some of the most well attended, drawing in significant revenue and accolades for museums.


Much of the opposition to the proposed Abu Dhabi Lourve lament that the French public will be deprived of its heritage. Three out of eight of the departments that structure the Louvre collection contain art from the Middle East and North Africa and are categorized as such: “Near Eastern Antiquities,” “Egyptian Antiquities” and “Islamic Art.” If this latest transaction with Abu Dhabi does in fact indicate a move to exploit France’s patrimony, then it must be acknowledged that the “French culture” being disputed over is not purely French nor is it devoid of a ruthless colonial history. In theory then, according to French opinion, it is perfectly acceptable to exploit non-French peoples and cultures for economic gain, whereas everything French is somehow sacrosanct and must be guarded from the tentacles of globalization. 


Not only is the French government maintaining the exploitative policies that built up so much of the museum’s collection, a great majority of the French arts and cultural community have dually accepted that the Louvre is an embodiment of French culture, its questionable history aside. An exhibition of over 70 works from the Louvre’s Egyptian, Near Eastern and Greco-Roman collections due to open at the end of 2007 at the High Museum is advertised by the Atlanta institution as:


Showcasing works dating from the third millennium BC through the third century AD, the exhibition examines the rise of the museum and its collections of antiquities under Napoleon, the discoveries and   decipherment of hieroglyphics and cuneiform and the Louvre’s leading  role in excavating the cradle of civilization at the end of the 19th century and during the 20th century.


With the ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern art it possesses, France continues to profit as it has for hundreds of years with the Louvre as a “universal museum.” Irrespective of the current complaints that France will be exploiting its own cultural heritage, what is painstakingly visible is that it will be profiting handsomely yet again from the Middle East and its cultural landscape, this time in a manner that is utterly surreal. It has been reported that the works leased to the Louvre Abu Dhabi will span numerous periods of history, meaning art from the above mentioned departments will most likely be included. In a way, the Napoleonic endeavors have come full circle.


True to art world irony, the BBC recently reported that Louvre president Henri Loyrette has announced plans to organize and dispatch a group of curators to the UAE to assure “scientific quality of the project and the respect of ethical rules” (BBC News 3/6/07).


All the more paradoxical is the reasoning that is advocated as Abu Dhabi’s objectives for leasing the Louvre name and collection. The president of the UAE Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed al Nahyan recently issued a statement outlining the Emirates’ aspirations of becoming “a world-class destination bridging global cultures.” Others involved in the project have voiced similar claims. In an article appearing in The New York Times, Barry Lord, the president of a consulting firm assisting the development project, boasted “They are very conscious here that this can change the cultural climate in the region. To be able to add high culture at the high end of international culture, this is a tremendous change.” Concurrently, Mubarak Muhairi, an Emirati official, outlined the “global cultural dimensions” of these efforts as being part of a belief that “the best vehicle for crossing borders is art. And this region is in need of such artistic initiatives” (NY Times 2/1/07). These claims come at a time when the wealthy nation is allegedly taking greater steps towards “democratization.”


In recent months the UAE has sought to better engage its nationals in local politics, which make up less than 20% of the population. The remaining percentage, the backbone of the local economy, is comprised of expatriates from mostly South Asia, neighboring Arab nations and Iran. A two phase plan to “gradually” introduce elections began in 2006. Sheikh Khalifa delineated this new direction late last year assuring that the initial stages of political empowerment for UAE nationals would be in the form of electing half of the Federal National Council (FNC). Coincidently, the FNC has no legislative authority, acting as simply an advisory committee to the government. At the end of 2006, the UAE held it’s first-ever elections. According to the BBC, only 7,000 nationals were allowed to vote for the FNC candidates. Both voters and candidates were selected by the Emirati government (BBC News 11/18/06). There has been little discussion as to whether the substantial expatriate population will be allowed to vote in future elections. Although generations of expatriates have lived and worked in the Gulf State for decades, contributing to its economic growth proportionately, non-Emirati residents are unable to obtain citizenship. Plans to naturalize nearly 10,000 non-Emirati residents were announced in October but were accompanied by the stipulation that obtainment is contingent on whether an individual is able to prove residency prior to the UAE’s founding in 1971.


Corresponding with these latest political developments is the discussion of how to address the UAE’s “demographic imbalance.” In an extensive interview with Asharq al Awsat Sheikh Khalifa assured his public that the Emirati government is aware of the “dangers” of the imbalance. He outlined a number of future efforts, including the restructuring of the local economy from a less “labor-intensive one” into an “economy that is built on advanced knowledge, technology and skilled labor with the purpose of replacing unskilled labor with modern technology.” The UAE president then emphasized:


We have indeed started preparing investment policies and legislation  to encourage capital- and technology- intensive industries over labor-intensive industries, which would mean that the upcoming years will witness a large decrease in the unskilled labor force, which is the social sector that affects the demographic imbalance the most. This transformation would also create more job opportunities for citizens (Asharq al Awsat 11/25/06).


In recent years there have been a number of protests and strikes by migrant workers employed in the private sector demanding the improvement of working conditions. When Abu Dhabi was criticized by several international human rights organizations, it vowed to address the rights of migrant workers with a number of legislative measures. It is now clear that the announcement was simply a means by which to buy time until the completion of needed construction, a buffer of sorts until long term measures are implemented. Sheikh Khalifa articulated this in his interview with Asharq al Awsat:


We are exerting effort on several axes with the ultimate objective of bringing the imbalance down to a safer level that can be controlled  and managed through integrated and long-term strategies, programs and plans that can be followed up, measured and evaluated and which serve legitimate national interests instead of taking the form of temporary partial measures.


If these changes are realized, it could mean that millions of migrant workers, “the unskilled labor force,” will find themselves unemployed. Not only have many suffered from economic exploitation with the lowest paying jobs available in the UAE, little to no medical care and living conditions that Human Rights Watch has referred to as “squalid,” there will now be efforts made to systematically phase these workers out from the local economy, forcing them to leave the UAE.


After years of building extravagant city skylines and civilian infrastructures on the backs of workers allotted few legal rights, the federation will no longer have a need for a large majority of its population. Thus, the UAE intends to create “a world-class destination bridging global cultures” while eradicating a “global” population that has contributed to its existence.


The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be part of larger art and cultural facilities located in a $27 billion development project consisting of hotels, resorts, golf courses and housing, a fact which raises questions as to who and what “culture” will be added to the region with the museum’s introduction. Leading international architects have been enlisted to design several structures, including Frank Gehry on behalf of a proposed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Placed within this economic context and demographic, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be built for a very specific audience, not unlike the majority of international museums. In turn “to be able to add high culture at the high end of international culture” as Barry Lord insists, not only comes at a high price but at a high human cost.


Moreover, what types of art and cultural scenes can exist, or even “thrive,” as so many in the regional and international art worlds are projecting, if situated in cities where civil rights are virtually non existent? How far will artists be able to push the bounds of freedom of expression in an environment heavily censored by a government that now plans to severely punish a population that dared to speak out against social oppression?


Despite Mubarak Muhairi’s assertion that the region is “in need of such artistic initiatives,” what remains apparent is the continual denial of what the Middle East truly needs—the end of totalitarian states, military occupations and economic exploitation.


The New York Times has suggested that the French-Emirati agreement could be part of a larger initiative to provide a much-needed cultural safe haven for Muslims and Arabs:


Given the difficulties Muslims have encountered traveling to and doing business in the United States and Europe since 9/11, the project can also be read as an attempt to recreate the experience of the West in a secure zone for Arabs, a kind of mini-Switzerland of the Middle East (NY Times 2/1/07).


Yet it is a major American corporation that recently made news for taking advantage of this “secure zone.” Earlier this month Halliburton announced plans to move its headquarters to Dubai.


Returning to the debate as to whether France is in fact “selling its soul”—souls are being sold, but whose souls are on the market?


Copyright 2007 Maymanah Farhat.


Maymanah Farhat is a specialist in modern and contemporary Arab art. She is the editor of ArteNews, an online newsletter that focuses on Middle Eastern art and culture.

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